When it comes to talking about emotional well-being at work, what is the role of a leader? From a leadership perspective, what steps can leaders take to support their teams? And what are the ways they take care of their emotional well-being? Simonas Naulickas, a professional life coach who helps high-performing leaders find their purpose, shares his experience on burnout, changing perspective and cultivating self-care.
When I came into the engineering world, I expected that I would program most of my time, creating new, cool things, etc. I also thought that technical skills were the most important skills to have. As a junior developer, I did not get to create as much as I expected. I usually worked on bug fixes or functionality that was not very exciting. Yet my expectation of technical skills being important was mostly true in my early career. However, the more senior I became, the more I realized that the deciding factor between a great senior/lead developer and an average one was soft skills.
I do not think I have a clear answer to this because the culture depends primarily on the company. Though, there are a few things about engineers that I have seen often. Engineers usually care a lot about the work they do. Most of the time, a developer would have or find enough work for a few years. In a sense, the job of a developer is never truly done. Yet it is common for engineers to overwork themselves, trying to do as much work as possible. A common misconception is that a developer earns a lot of money without working hard. You can make it easy with experience, but to get there – you must go through a lot. So it definitely is not easy to start.
I used to think that how you manage your emotions depended on how you were born, and I never thought of improving it. So emotional balance at work was not a topic for me until I had one burnout too many. Nowadays, I see emotional balance as neither letting your emotions hijack you nor suppressing them. It is allowing yourself to experience a broad spectrum of possible emotions and trying your best not to judge them as negative or positive. This shift in perspective helped me not only in my career but also in my personal relationships.
I did experience burnout quite a few times throughout my career. While burnt out, I used to get easily irritated and detached from other people. I would get so sucked into work that all other areas of my life suffered. Most of the time, I did not realize it was burnout until after the fact. When I was in that state, I wanted to escape the feeling and quit my job. Only recently, I realized that the burnouts were my responsibility, and without changing the way I think, I would continue to exhaust myself. That made me dig deeper to understand my emotions. That was a game-changer. Your body will send signals if you are burning out, and if you choose to listen to it, you can come out of it without making drastic changes, as I did.
Leaders set an example for what is accepted and what is not. If leaders overwork themselves and sacrifice their well-being, the people that follow them will treat that as the norm. Not only do they need to be vocal about mental health, but they also have to set an example and act that way. Teams taking care of their mental health perform much better in the long run. Also, in many cases, more experienced people quit not because they get more money or a better job elsewhere. They leave because they cannot take care of their mental health in their current workplace.
The best way for leaders to support their engineering teams is to show them tools for self-care. However, that cannot happen without building trust with your team. And you cannot build trust without being authentic – saying one thing and doing another is not good practice. When you create trust, you can support your team more powerfully. And even to mutually rely on their support, which leaders need, yet rarely seek.
The more experienced you become, the more people will want to get a piece of your knowledge and time. Yet, you cannot give your time to everyone without stretching yourself too thin. As a leader, you must learn how to set boundaries. For example, if you let people invite you to meetings back-to-back without any breaks in between, you will eventually exhaust yourself. Setting a boundary like “I need at least 10-15 minutes between different meetings” and communicating that with others – is a must for your emotional well-being. There are plenty of various boundaries that you should establish for yourself, and the sooner you start, the sooner you will feel the results.